Scream 4, Review 1, Footnotes 13

This is the first of our Scream 4 reviews, written by Ben Shillito. It’s got some spoilers, including some details of the big opening and of a crucial late scene. We’re guessing that you’ve had your chance to see the film now, or if you haven’t, that you might want to come back to this review later. The spoilers are integral to Ben’s take on the film, and we’d rather he use them, with warning, than not say what it is he has to say.

One final warning: the footnotes have even more spoilers in them. use discretion.

You know that moment in McG’s Terminator Salvation, when Christian Bale and Sam Worthington are both down, and just for a moment you start to suspect that Bale is going to die and Worthington’s half-Terminator Marcus Wright is going to take on the identity of John Connor and lead the rebellion? That moment when inventive sequels flash tantalisingly through your mind, in which intelligent film-makers confront the dualistic nature of man and machine, creator and creation, harmony and discord?  And then a few minutes later, Worthington is dead and Christian Bale is on his feet, and Bryce Dallas Howard is simpering in the back of shots again, and your brief and burning hopes are gone, a sacrifice to the risk-averse cowardice of modern Hollywood franchise storytelling.  Remember that?  Prepare to feel that way again.

In the penultimate reel of Scream 4, Wes Craven’s latest stalk-and-slash teen-gore opus, there is a moment.  Just a moment.  A long slow tracking shot with a transcendent fade-to-white, when the pit of your stomach falls away and you think you’re watching the most brilliant, daring, franchise-rebooting ending in sequel history.  (Think Halloween 4, that’s as much as I’m saying.)  The fade-to-white holds, sustains, and then … fade in.  Another reel.  And now it’s the same ending we’ve seen three times before, with the same weak reversals and even the same three survivors[i].

Somebody wimped out here.  And that’s the problem with Scream 4.  For all the fun, for all the frolics, for all the rollercoaster jump-scares and chase scenes, and for all the effort and chutzpah and care taken by the film makers and the excellent cast – for all that, somebody wimped out.

But what if they hadn’t?  If that last ten minutes weren’t there, what would we have?  Frankly, a damn good film.

To start with, Scream 4 has a brilliant opening.  Two girls chat about horror movies.  They are articulate, and astute, and spew the same cringey dialogue Williamson wrote for the film students in Scream 2.[ii] The phone rings, Facebook messages pop up, the doorbell goes and two anonymous teens hit the deck with a splat.  Cut to – two older women, Anna Paquin[iii] and Kristen Bell, switch off the TV and bitch about what they’ve just seen.  It was the opening to Stab 6, the self-reflexive sixquel to the meta-movie that haunted Scream 2 and Scream 3, and Paquin is not a fan[iv].  “Facebook killer?” she scoffs, quite rightly.  Then the phone rings.  Our celebs get freaked, and die.  And we pull back again to a logo – Stab 7.  Jenny and Marnie, identikit teen girls who almost speak like real human beings, kill the TV and shake their heads at the self-consuming slew of horror sequels.  We are in Woodsboro.  We’re home, back in the town where the houses of the affluent run red with blood and every high-schooler has a cineaste’s knowledge of the tropes and clichés of horror.

The numerous deaths which we see before the title card are a devious and clever way to open Scream 4, pulling the same rug twice in quick succession and folding narrative, meta-narrative and meta-criticism into a dizzying soufflé which leaves the audience breathless, grinning and waiting to be fooled. And if the postmodernity tastes a little rich, maybe it’s just that there’s too much iron(y) in all that blood.

With our six little screamers offered up to the gods[v], it’s time to kick off the plot.  Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is back in town on the last stop of her book tour, and everyone is on high alert for terror.  Sidney is the “angel of death”, says Marielle Jaffe’s CoEd hottie Olivia, in between swapping bon mots with Hayden Panettiere and phone calls with the mysterious Trevor, off-screen ex-squeeze of nominal heroine Jill (Emma Roberts).  Some deathless exposition sets up the plot, a pair of geeks with webcams[vi] and poor skin-care provide the nerd quotient, Courtney Cox gives good frustrated housewife and David Arquette squints perplexedly just past the camera, a technique which has served him well for three films and which he shows no sign of dropping now.

Other Scream tropes back for a lap of honour are the victim/suspect boyfriend (Nico Tortorella, an interesting young actor in the utterly thankless role of Trevor[vii]), the socially awkward nerd dispensing life-saving film facts (actually two of them this time, camera-headed Erik Knudsen and the superb Rory Culkin) and the sassy post-feminist sex-object who goes to her grave with a wry snark (Rose McGowan in Scream, sent up by Shannon Elizabeth in Scary Movie and now reincarnated as Hayden Panettiere)[viii].  In this archetypal character, Williamson’s script makes its only real divergence from the template, as Panettiere’s Kirby is just as much a geek as the two spotty boys, albeit a hot, confident, sexually aggressive geek[ix].  In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, a cunning inversion of the first movie’s Drew Barrymore sequence, Panettiere is on the phone to Ghostface, her love-interest taped to a chair outside the window, his life on the line if she gets her trivia questions wrong.  A few easy questions, then remakes come up, and Panettiere growls out a hate-list of every shoddy remake of the last ten years, from The Hills Have Eyes[x] to I Spit on Your Grave, triumphantly out-geeking the killer and saving her beau from a butchering.  And much good it does her.  Say goodbye to the best character in the film.  Maybe her failure to identify Peeping Tom as the first slasher film (she picks Psycho, which Peeping Tom pre-dates by one year) is reason enough for Williamson to wipe her out, but it feels cheap, a waste of a character who could have thrived in a less conventionally-plotted sequel.

From here on, it’s race time as the plot tightens around Sidney and Jill, and Deputy Dewey (now Sheriff Dewey, and paired up with the comically intense Marley Shelton as Deputy Judy[xi]) tries to save the day.  Knives flash through the air, identities are revealed and reversed, shots are fired and ambulances assemble for an epilogue that just won’t end.  It’s in the middle of all this excitement that the fade-to-white occurs, and just for a moment Scream 4 is a brilliant, brilliant film.  And then the wimping-out, and the last reversal, and the promise of a brave new franchise evaporates into the same-old same-old.  I’m going to be uncharitable here and decide, with no justification, that executive producer and un-credited re-writer Ehren Kruger probably wrote the last reel, because it’s as lazy and cheap as his drab script for Scream 3, and leaves one with the same bitter after-taste.[xii]

Scream 4 starts well, ends well, then fades back in and ends again, and that’s when it all falls apart. It’s no wonder reviewers are being asked to sign non-disclosure agreements for the third act.[xiii] Because, and I know I’ve said this before, somebody wimped out, and that’s a tragedy to outdo any number of Woodsboro teen massacres.

[i] OK, that’s a spoiler.  Sue me.

[ii] Fact – the film-school classroom scene in Scream 2 contains officially the Worst Dialogue Ever Written for Teen Actors by a Middle-Aged Man.

[iii] Anna Paquin is one of two actresses credited in this film as having their own make-up artist.  Presumably to cover the vampire love-bites.

[iv] In one of Scream 4’s strangest moments, we see the opening of Stab, but with a curious addition – a director credit for Robert Rodriguez.  As any Scream fan knows, Stab was directed by “Fred Rifkin”, and Wes Craven is on record as saying that the opening of Stab was his attempt to remake the opening of Scream in the style of a bad director.  Is there some bad blood between Craven and Rodriguez that I’ve missed?

[v] OK, Kristen Bell’s a killer, not a victim, but publishing that probably counts as a spoiler, and spoilers are BAD.

[vi] Misleading trailer alert!  From the Scream 4 trailer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that webcams, live-streaming video and new media form part of the plot of the film.  They don’t.  It’s a red herring every bit as egregious as the casting of rent-a-villain Lance Henriksen as an innocent victim in Scream 3.

[vii] In other “thankless role” news, see Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica’s President Roslin, whose two-scene non-character is a slap in the face for one of Hollywood’s finest actresses.  At least in her two scenes she manages the Rupert Grint effect, and acts everyone else into a corner.

[viii] Another example of the self-consumption of this film is the scene in which Courtney Cox re-enacts, beat-by-beat, Jada Pinkett’s Scream 2 scene, her cries and struggles unheard by the baying teens enjoying Heather Graham’s death on screen.  Hang on, that’s probably a spoiler, too.

[ix] Geek credentials – Kirby owns Suspiria on DVD, and almost certainly didn’t like Saw 6.  Wink.

[x] One of three Wes Craven films identified here as having been remade badly, along with Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

[xi] Shelton’s swivel-eyed Deputy, with her too-tight pony-tail and evident crush on Dewey, is a splendid character, and one of the more interesting killer-suspects in the franchise.  If Scream 5 happens, she must return.

[xii] The extent of Kruger’s rewrite is not known, but it would certainly justify Kevin Williamson’s alleged distaste for the film – Williamson is credited as producer (alongside Craven and Craven’s wife Iya Labunka), but he is doing no press and is reportedly “in dispute” with the production.

[xiii] Of course, signing an NDA for the third act means it’s impossible to talk about the wimp-out double ending, which is probably in Dimension’s best interests.

Scream 4 is in cinemas across the US and UK now.